Eye On Boise

Ranchers slated to join Idaho firefighting efforts

Even as Gov. Butch Otter pushes to help create new state-funded rancher groups to fight wildfires in this year's legislative session, one such existing group in Idaho is under scrutiny by federal safety investigators following a fatal firefighting accident last summer, Associated Press reporter John Miller reports. Today, the House Resources Committee approved a measure governing how these new rancher-led organizations are established. Idaho's new associations will be volunteer, formed by ranchers who have long sought permission to use their farm equipment to help corral range fires, Miller reports; in some instances, ranchers say they can act more quickly than BLM crews can respond. The legislation sets standards for the groups including requiring state review of their training plans and liability insurance; click below for Miller's full report.

Ranchers slated to join Idaho firefighting efforts
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's bid to help create new state-funded rancher groups to fight wildfires comes as an existing Idaho-backed firefighting association is under scrutiny by federal safety investigators following a fatal accident last summer.

Otter cited 20-year-old firefighter Anne Veseth's death in a wildfire near Orofino in his Jan. 7 State of the State speech as a reason for wanting $400,000 in taxpayer funding to help Idaho ranchers create new volunteer fire protective associations to knock down destructive, fast-moving range fires.

"We owe her and thousands like her a fighting chance while protecting our forests and rangelands," Otter said.

This month, however, Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigators proposed a $14,000 fine for the state-funded Clearwater-Potlatch Timber Protective Association that was leading efforts on the Steep Corner fire where Veseth died Aug. 12 after being struck by a falling tree. They alleged the association violated numerous standards, including proper communications, weather awareness and identifying escape routes.

As these questions about Idaho firefighter safety loom, state forester David Groeschl said training for ranchers who will form the proposed new rangeland fire protective associations that Otter wants to help pay for is essential in maximizing safety — and avoiding accidents like the one that killed Veseth.

Ranchers will work with fire officials from the Bureau of Land Management and the state Department of Lands, to ensure they know rules of engagement, he said.

"We have to really focus on the training — what can occur on rangeland, helping them understand the risks, and how to communicate and coordinate with the BLM," Groeschl said. "Can I give you an assurance that somebody would never be injured again? I wish I could tell you it would never happen again. I can't."

On Tuesday, the House Resources Committee approved a measure governing how these new rancher-led organizations are established.

Currently, Idaho law has no such standards for these groups, said Tom Schultz, director of the Lands Department, which will review the proposed associations' structure and training plans, along with the adequacy of their liability insurance.

"By at least having a structure or a framework for these rangeland fire protection associations, it provides greater oversight and protection to these entities than existing law," Schultz said.

Idaho's push to expand ranchers' role in fighting rangeland fires is modeled after a 50-year-old program in neighboring Oregon, which now has a dozen rancher-based firefighting organizations.

Greg Bedortha helped found the Post-Paulina Rangeland Fire Protective Association in Oregon in 2006. He hasn't had to fight a fire near his ranch east of Bend since then. But other members have, and Bedortha believes rancher groups have an important role in buttressing federal crews that often are stretched thin.

Idaho's new associations will be volunteer, formed by ranchers who have long sought permission to use their farm equipment to help corral range fires. In some instances, ranchers say they can act more quickly than BLM crews can respond.

The $400,000 Otter wants is "seed money" to pay for drafting legal documents for associations and to supply them with used water tenders, radios and fire-resistant clothing. After this initial state cash, however, the groups are intended to fund themselves, through member assessments.

In advance of this legislation, Idaho's first rancher-led rangeland fire association was formed last year in Mountain Home. It assisted the federal agency on its first blaze in July.

Steve Acarregui, BLM Boise District fire manager, didn't return a phone call Tuesday on how the relationship worked. But in a letter last year to the state, Acarregui praised the Mountain Home group's initial contributions.

"What transpired was a good display of teamwork and willingness to safely achieve a common mission," he wrote.


Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.




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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Russell covers Idaho news from the state capitol in Boise and writes the Eye on Boise blog.

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